The first time Way Hedding ever met Johnny Kelley, he was a runner for New London High School in the late 1960s and Kelley was the opposing coach at Fitch. Hedding ripped his shorts and Kelley went and got him a new pair.
"My coach (Malcolm Greenaway) said, 'Where'd you get those?'" Hedding said. "I said, 'That guy gave them to me.' He said, 'Do you know who that is?' I said, 'I have no clue.' He said, 'He's the winner of the Boston Marathon.'… He started listing all his accomplishments.
"He didn't want the shorts back or anything. He just gave them to me and said, 'Have a good race.'"
Hedding's relationship with Mystic's Kelley grew.
Kelley, the 1957 Boston Marathon champion and a two-time Olympian, embraced the local running community, for one thing. Hedding was one of what he calls "revelers," who attended gatherings at Kelley and his wife Jessie's home long into the night every Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.
"He was the guru and we were the groupies. The house was always open," Hedding said.
Then in 1989, Hedding took over as race director for what is now the Ocean Beach/John & Jessie Kelley 11.6-mile road race, a scenic trek known as one of the best in New England and one of the only remaining races in the country without an entry fee.
The inaugural race took place in 1963. In 1974 it was renamed in Kelley's honor and Jessie's name was added to the title following her death in 2003. Last year, the race celebrated its golden anniversary, the first race following the death of John Kelley in August, 2011, at the age of 80.
At 9 a.m. Saturday, the race which has been won by great marathon champions and local high school standouts alike - the second-oldest race in the state after the Manchester Road Race - will celebrate its 51st running, beginning and ending at New London's Ocean Beach.
Hedding will be celebrating his 25th year as race director.
"It was a killer," said the 64-year-old Hedding, speaking of the early days of the race, which was formerly held at noon in the heat of August. "It was billed 'for serious runners only' and there were only 50 or so runners. It was Jack Dempsey (former race director) who said, 'You have to suffer dehydration before you can enjoy rehydration.'
"We have a tremendous nucleus of local runners. This is their Mount Everest."
Kelley won the first two races in 1963 and 1964, followed by three straight wins for Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon champ who was coached at Fitch by none other than Kelley. Another local, 1971 New York Marathon champion Norm Higgins, won the Kelley Race in 1970.
Kelley, when he wasn't running, would serve as the honorary starter of the Ocean Beach race and remained at the finish line until the last competitor crossed.
Last year, Kelley's grandson Jacob Edwards ran the race, featuring more than 750 runners and 546 finishers, on its 50th anniversary.
"He might have rolled over in his grave," Edwards said that day of the thought of charging an entry fee. "He couldn't believe people paid for running a road race."
Because that's the way Kelley wanted it - free - that's the way it will remain, even if it isn't quite as easy to provide all the prizes, insurance and police protection the way most races can through collecting the entry fee.
For example, the Rock 'n' Roll St. Pete (Fla.) Half-Marathon in February will cost participants $150 to enter the week of the race for just about a mile more than the Kelley Race.
That has been and will continue to be a challenge for Hedding as race director.
"We have committed people that volunteer stuff. And I beg, borrow and steal a lot of stuff," Hedding said. "There's a lot of integrity and tradition involved in this race. Out of respect for Jessie and Johnny, if you have to dig in your own pocket every now and then, you do it. You do it."
Hedding credits Ocean Beach Park manager Dave Sugrue for his involvement.
"He tells me, 'Whatever you need,'" Hedding said. "When I get there in the morning, he's already there.'"
Volunteers man 10 water stops along the course, with donated products from Crystal Rock Spring Water, including approximately 20,000 cups, Hedding estimates. Pepsi products, Port 'N' Starboard clam chowder, entertainment by the band "Run For Cover" and the SNERRO timing service are all donated.
Hedding and his wife Melinda, who co-own with Pete Volkmar what is now known solely as SNERRO - formerly the Southern New England Road Race Officials, which times around 60 races per year with their state-of-the-art equipment - reside in Niantic. Hedding works at Electric Boat as part of Metal Trades Council safety.
Hedding, who runs about 100 races per year himself, has also competed in 59 marathons, including Boston and New York several times and in cities as far-reaching as Moscow. He hasn't run the Kelley Race since taking over as race director, though, instead lending his personality and brand of humor to the finish line along with his game-day expertise.
Race-day registration begins at 8 a.m. Saturday. Runners are asked to bring a food donation to benefit the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center.
Burfoot will be in the race, just like old times. Laura Brustolon of Stonington, meanwhile, will attempt to win her fifth straight women's division title.
Hedding, who spent the week marking the course and answering phone calls and emails in advance, is most proud of it earning the distinction as the "2012 Race of the Year" by New England Runner Magazine.
"They came to the race last year and they were impressed," said Hedding, who didn't know of the selection until it was released in the magazine. "That was from hundreds of ones to choose from. We've always been rated in the top 80 best of the best. A lot of people say, 'I've got a good one. Why am I not in there?' And rightfully so.
"But this wasn't anything I put in. This was a runners' poll, based on what they thought. That overwhelmed me."